Read Chapter XXXVI of At the Time Appointed , free online book, by A. Maynard Barbour, on ReadCentral.com.

SENORA MARTINEZ

Although Mr. Underwood escaped the stroke which it was feared might follow the excitement of his final interview with Walcott, it was soon apparent that his nervous system had suffered from the shock. His physician became insistent in his demands that he not only retire from business, but have an entire change of scene, to insure absolute relaxation and rest. This advice was earnestly seconded by Mr. Britton, not alone for the sake of his friend’s health, but more especially because he believed it unsafe for Mr. Underwood or Kate to remain in that part of the country so long as Walcott had his liberty. Their combined counsel and entreaties at length prevailed. A responsible man was found to take charge, under Mr. Britton’s supervision, of Mr. Underwood’s business interests. The Pines was closed, two or three faithful servants being retained to guard and care for the property, and early in April Mr. Underwood, accompanied by his sister and daughter, left Ophir ostensibly for the South. They remained south, however, only until he had recuperated sufficiently for a longer journey, and then sailed for Europe, but of this fact no one in Ophir had knowledge save Mr. Britton.

During the last days of Kate’s stay in Ophir she watched in vain for another glimpse of her strange friend. On the morning of her departure, as the train was leaving the depot, she suddenly saw the olive-skinned messenger of former occasions running alongside the Pullman in which she was seated. Catching her eye, he motioned for her to raise the window; she did so, whereupon he tossed a little package into her lap, pointing at the same time farther down the platform, and lifting his ragged sombrero, vanished. An instant later the Senora came into view, standing at the extreme end of the platform, a lace mantilla thrown about her head and shoulders, the ends of which she now waved in token of farewell. Kate held up the little package with a smile; she responded with a deprecatory gesture indicative of its insignificance, then with another wave of the lace scarf and a flutter of Kate’s handkerchief, they passed out of each other’s sight.

Kate hastily undid the package; a little box of ebony inlaid with pearl slipped from the wrappings, which, upon touching a secret spring, opened, disclosing a small cross of Etruscan gold of the most exquisite workmanship. In her first letter to Mr. Britton Kate related the incident, and begged him to look out for the woman and render her any assistance possible.

To this Mr. Britton needed no urging. Since his first sight of her that night in Mr. Underwood’s office he had been looking for her, for a twofold purpose. For a number of weeks he failed to get even a glimpse of her, nor could he obtain any clew to her whereabouts.

One night, well into the summer, he came upon her, unexpectedly, standing in front of a cheap restaurant, looking at the edibles displayed in the window. She was not veiled, her face was pale and haggard, and there was no mistaking the expression in her eyes as she finally turned away.

“My friend,” said Mr. Britton, laying his hand gently on her shoulder, “are you hungry?”

She shrank from him with a start till a glance in his face reassured her, and she answered, with an expressive gesture,

“Yes, Senor; I have had nothing to eat to-day, and but little yesterday.”

“This is no fit place; come with me,” Mr. Britton replied, leading the way two or three blocks down the street, to a first-class restaurant. He conducted her through the ladies’ entrance into a private box, where he ordered a substantial dinner for two.

“Senor,” she protested, as the waiter left the box, “I have no money, no way to repay you for this, you understand?”

“I understand,” he answered, quickly; “I want no return for this. Miss Underwood wished me to find you, and help you, if I could.”

“Yes, I know; you are the Senorita’s friend.”

“And your friend also, if I can help you.”

“You saved his life that night, Senor; I do not forget,” the woman said, with peculiar emphasis.

“Yes, I undoubtedly saved the scoundrel from a summary vengeance; possibly I might not have done it, had I known what the alternative would be. Where is that man now?” he asked, with sudden directness.

“I do not know, Senor; he tells me nothing, but I have heard he went south some time ago.”

The entrance of the waiter with their orders put a temporary stop to conversation. The woman ate silently, regarding Mr. Britton from time to time with an expression of childlike wonder. When her hunger was appeased, and she seemed inclined to talk, he said,

“Tell me something of yourself. When and where did you marry that man?”

“We were married in Mexico, seven years ago.”

“Your home was in Mexico?”

“No, Senor, my father owned a big cattle ranch in Texas. Senor Walcott, as you call him here, worked for him. He wanted to marry me, but my father opposed the marriage. We lived close to the line, so we went across one day and were married. My father was very angry, but I was his only child, and by and by he forgave and took us back.”

“Do I understand you that Walcott is not this man’s real name?” Mr. Britton interposed.

“His name is Jose Martinez, Senor.”

“But is he not a half-breed? I have understood his father was an Englishman.”

“His father was an Englishman, but no one ever knew who he was, you understand, Senor? Afterwards his mother married Pablo Martinez, and her child took his name. That was why my father opposed our marriage.”

“I understand,” said Mr. Britton; “but he claims heavy cattle interests in the South; how did he come by them?”

“My father’s, all of them;” she replied. “He and my father quarrelled soon after we went there to live. Then we came away north; we lived for a while in this State,” she paused and hesitated as though fearing she had said too much, but Mr. Britton’s face betrayed nothing, and she continued: “Then, in a year or so, we went south and he and my father quarrelled again. My father was found dead on the plains, trampled by the cattle, but no one knew how it came about. Then Jose took everything and told me I had nothing. He went north again three years ago. A year later he came back and told me I was not his wife, that our marriage was void because it was not performed in this country. I became very ill. He took me away among strangers and left me there, to die, as he thought. But he was mistaken. I had something to live for, to follow him, as I have followed him and will follow him to the end.”

The woman rose from the table; Mr. Britton rose also, and stood for a moment, facing her.

“He is a dangerous man,” he said; “how is it that you do not fear him?”

She laughed softly. “He fears me, Senor; why should I fear him?”

“I understand,” Mr. Britton said; “he fears you because you know him to be a criminal; because his freedom perhaps his very life is in your hands. Why are you not in danger on that account? What is to hinder his taking a life so inimical to his own?”

A cunning, treacherous smile crept over her face and a baleful light gleamed in her eyes, as she replied, “If I die at his hand my secret does not die with me. I have fixed that. If I die to-day, the world knows my secret to-morrow. He knows it, Senor, and I am safe.”

“Did it never occur to you,” said Mr. Britton, slowly, “that for the safety of others your secret should be made known now?”

The woman’s whole appearance changed; she regarded Mr. Britton with a look of mingled anger and terror, as he continued:

“That man’s life and freedom are a constant menace to other lives. Are you willing to take the responsibility of the results which may follow your withholding that secret, keeping it locked within your own breast?”

The woman looked quickly for a chance of escape, but Mr. Britton barred the only means of exit. Her expression was that of a creature brought to bay.

“I understand the meaning of your kindness to-night,” she cried, fiercely. “You are one of the ‘fly’ men, and you thought to buy my secret from me. Let me tell you, you will never buy it, nor can you force it from me! So long as he does me no harm I will never make it known, and if I die a natural death, it dies with me!”

“You are mistaken,” he replied, calmly; “I am no detective, no official of any sort. My bringing you here to-night was of itself wholly disinterested, done for the sake of a friend who wished me to help you. I have wished to meet you and talk with you, as I was interested to learn your story, out of sympathy for you and a desire to help you, and also to shed new light on your husband’s character, of which I have made quite a study; but I am not seeking to force you into making any disclosures against your will.”

Her anger had subsided as quickly as it had been aroused.

“Pardon me, Senor,” she said; “I was wrong. Accept my gratitude for your kindness; I will not forget.”

“Don’t mention it. If you need help at any time, let me know; I do not forget that you saved my friend’s life. But one word in parting: don’t think your secret will not become known. Those things always work themselves out, and justice will overtake that man yet. When it does, your own life may not be as safe as you now think it is. If you need a friend then, come to me.”

The woman regarded him silently for a moment. “Thank you, Senor,” she said, gently; “I understand. Justice will yet overtake him, as you say; and when it does,” she added, significantly, “I will need no help.”